updated 1/24/2005 6:36:27 AM ET 2005-01-24T11:36:27

In a symbolic trip a day after his inauguration, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko headed to Russia on Monday to smooth relations with the Kremlin, which feared the Western-oriented reformer would try to take his country out of Moscow’s orbit and had staunchly backed his rival.

In his first full day in office, Yushchenko faces a delicate balancing act in meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose support for the losing candidate had badly hurt Russia’s relations with the West.

“Russia is a large country, Ukraine’s lifelong neighbor, with whom we can live in peace and accord,” Yushchenko said Monday after a service at Kiev’s Sofiisky Cathedral where he offered prayers for Ukraine.

Yushchenko looks to West
Russia views Ukraine as a key part of its historic sphere of influence, a major transit route for its oil and gas exports and a buffer between the expanding European Union and NATO. Moscow is nervous about Yushchenko’s plans to quickly integrate the 48-million nation into Western structures.

On his inauguration day Sunday, Yushchenko reaffirmed his aim to shift Ukraine’s focus westward.

“Our place is in the European Union,” he said to a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 people in Independence Square, where throngs of his supporters had gathered to protest fraud in the Nov. 21 runoff vote won by then Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

While the United States and other Western countries refused to acknowledge the fraudulent vote, Putin twice congratulated Yanukovych on his victory and bristled at opposition demands for a fresh rematch — a course that cast a cloud over Moscow’s ties with the West.

Amid the round-the-clock opposition protests dubbed the “Orange Revolution” after Yushchenko’s campaign color, Ukraine’s Supreme Court invalidated the election results and ordered a Dec. 26 rerun, which Yushchenko handily won.

Pledge to build ties with Russia
In a promise clearly aimed at appeasing the country’s large numbers of Russian-speaking people, many of whom fear his Ukrainian nationalist sentiments might lead to discrimination against them, Yushchenko said: “Everyone can teach his children the language of his forefathers.”

He also has pledged to develop close economic ties with Russia, Ukraine’s biggest trading partner and investor. Ukraine under former President Leonid Kuchma signed up as a key member of a planned joint economic space that would unite it with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in an arrangement that aims to harmonize tax, customs and other trade links.

Yushchenko hasn’t made clear whether he intends to pursue the agreement, saying only that Ukraine would have to ensure that its national interests are met.

'No alternative' to cooperation
Putin and other Russian officials have tried to get past the election controversy, emphasizing the need to maintain close ties.

“There is no alternative to the development of relations,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko said Monday.

Putin on Monday asked Cabinet officials for their proposals on how to develop economic relations with Ukraine.

After his trip to Moscow, Yushchenko is to embark on several days of visits to Western European countries including an appearance at the European Parliament to push his drive for closer ties. But the EU has made it clear that Ukraine is not yet in line to become a member.

Yushchenko has promised to turn the country around after years of corruption, widespread at almost every level of government, and he pledged to safeguard freedom of speech.

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